South Dakota Democratic Rep. Herseth Sandlin in close race

By Chet Brokaw
Pierre, South Dakota (AP) November 2010

Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has won her last two races by wide margins, but the South Dakota Democrat is fighting to survive this year as she seeks a fourth term in the U.S. House in a political climate perilous for incumbents.

Herseth Sandlin has worked hard to build a reputation as a moderate. She’s voted against President Barack Obama’s health reform measure and bailouts for the financial and automobile industries.

But Republican challenger Kristi Noem, assistant majority leader in the South Dakota House, has criticized Herseth Sandlin for being part of a Democratic Congress that has let spending get out of control while failing to revive the nation’s economy.

While both campaigns have continued to hit their main themes, both have taken detours in recent weeks to bash each other over more personal issues.

Herseth Sandlin and some Democratic Party organizations have castigated Noem for her bad driving record, with one ad run by a national Democratic campaign group suggesting Noem’s history of speeding and running stop signs puts South Dakota children at risk.

Noem has criticized Herseth Sandlin because the congresswoman’s husband, former Texas Rep. Max Sandlin, is a lobbyist in Washington. And the South Dakota Republican Party has repeatedly accused Herseth Sandlin and the South Dakota Democratic Party of possibly violating the law by offering food for votes at rallies on American Indian reservations where food is served before people are offered transportation to go vote early.

The Democratic congresswoman said she believes she’ll win because voters know she will stand up against her party leaders and has a record of getting things done for South Dakota.

“I believe I represent the broad swath of Americans and South Dakotans in the center. I’m not going to give up despite the challenges of partisanship, despite the challenges of the extreme ideologies on both sides of the political spectrum,” Herseth Sandlin said.

Herseth Sandlin is a leader of the Blue Dogs, a group of House Democrats who are conservative on spending issues, but Noem said the Democrat has failed to curb federal spending or prevent the health reform bill from passing.

Noem said voters should elect her if they want change in Congress.

“They should vote for me because they want someone who represents South Dakota who is effective, who doesn’t just place votes but actually makes a difference on legislation that’s important to South Dakota,” Noem said.

Even a year ago, Herseth Sandlin was considered a strong favorite to win re-election, having won with 69 percent of the vote in 2006 and nearly 68 percent in 2008.

Elizabeth Smith, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota, said the outcome this year depends on how many of Herseth Sandlin’s former supporters Noem can take away.

“I really think this is going to be a close election. Every indication at this point suggests there are a lot of folks out there who are undecided,” Smith said.

Herseth Sandlin will continue to get votes from some Republicans, but some Democrats continue to be unhappy with the congresswoman because she voted against the health care bill, Smith said.

Herseth Sandlin, 39, and Noem, 38, both tout their upbringing on South Dakota farms. And both have featured their children in campaign ads.

The race also includes an independent candidate, B. Thomas Marking of Custer, a retired federal employee who has said if elected he would let South Dakotans vote on important issues on his website to guide his votes in the House.

Herseth Sandlin said she has helped South Dakota by promoting ethanol, biodiesel, wind energy, programs for farmers and ranchers, improved service for military veterans and better law enforcement on American Indian reservations.

Noem said she has worked in the Legislature to promote wind energy development, make agricultural property taxes fair and protect the right to bear arms.

Both candidates have focused much of their campaigns on the need to cut federal spending. Noem has criticized Herseth Sandlin for voting for last year’s $787 billion stimulus measure, various budget bills and other measures that increased the nation’s debt. The stimulus bill has failed to create the jobs the president promised, she said.

“I am very concerned about this country’s trend for the last year and a half toward more spending and increasing our debt,” Noem said.

Herseth Sandlin said she voted for the stimulus measure because it was needed to prevent the recession from growing worse. It has lessened the severity and length of the recession, she said.

However, the Democrat points out that she voted against the health care bill and bailout measures because they cost too much and did not include enough oversight.

“I have a consistent record and voters know that. They know that I have forced Congress to make hard decisions by holding a coalition of fiscal hawks, deficit hawks together,” Herseth Sandlin said.

Smith said the heart of the race has been Noem’s contention that Herseth Sandlin has supported House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s agenda instead of doing what is right for South Dakota.

Noem and other Republicans have repeatedly said Herseth Sandlin votes with the House speaker more than 90 percent of the time, citing a Washington Post rating of how often members of Congress vote with their party. The analysis, which includes all votes including procedural matters and routine bills that pass unanimously, actually found that Herseth Sandlin voted with her party less frequently than about 90 percent of the other House Democrats.

“It’s a bogus statistic. It’s meaningless,” Herseth Sandlin said, adding that House Minority Leader John Boehner votes with Pelosi more than half the time.

A statistic that nags at Noem, meanwhile, are the numbers attached to her driving record. She had 28 traffic violations in the past decade, including 20 tickets for speeding and three for failing to make a proper stop. She also failed to appear in court six times and had two warrants issued for her arrest when she failed to pay fines.

Noem said her driving record has nothing to do with issues facing the nation, and she is dedicated to being a safe driver.

“I’ve paid my fines,” Noem said. “I’ve apologized for my driving record.”

Smith, the political science professor, said voters need to look beyond the television ads.

“I think a lot will depend on how much attention voters pay to the news and what the candidates actually say and what they actually stand for,” Smith said.